The Fifth Child at Seder This Year

Courtesy: Camp Ramah, Northern California.

By Rabbi Sarah Shulman

In another week, we will be sitting with our families around the virtual seder table, equipped with google docs and pdfs to keep us on the same page. In telling the story of the Exodus, we will read about four children: the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one who does not know how to ask. This year, amidst the uncertainty that has come to be our new norm, we also feel the presence of a fifth child. This child admits, “I don’t know,” reflecting the truth her inquiring parents hold just as much as she does. The fourth child knows not how to ask; the fifth child knows not how to act.

In Biblical Hebrew and Jewish liturgy there are a plethora of different verbs we use for knowing, discerning, and understanding. In contrast, there are few words for “not knowing.” Judaism is a religion that values knowledge and community, both of which have been fundamentally disrupted this season amidst the spread of COVID-19.

As an overnight Jewish camp director, I have had to embrace “I don’t know” as the reality across our field of work. We simply don’t know whether we’ll be able to run camp this summer, or in what form that might take. And like the rest of us, we don’t know when we’ll be able to leave our homes, or when our children will go back to school. We don’t know which of our friends or family members will get sick. We don’t even know how we’ll hold up ourselves in this turmoil. As much as “I don’t know” is a terrifying posture to uphold, it is also one of truth and compassion.

When our families began to ask me about whether we would run camp this summer, I was nervous at first about saying “I don’t know.” But I also knew it was the truth that had to be communicated. I found that as we shared often and with clarity what we knew and what we did not know with families, staff, lay leaders, and donors, we were met with words of appreciation and understanding. For how could we possibly know what the world would look like in three months when medical experts and politicians have only rough projections to share? One staff member wrote me: “Thank you for taking a breath and recognizing that we have no idea where we’ll be in a day, a week, a month from now.” 

I was raised in a world where the paradigm for not knowing was Cain. Cain kills his brother Abel. Yet when God asks Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” he responds “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:8). For this response, or for his actions, Cain is cursed. Through saying, “I don’t know,” Cain rejects truth and responsibility for his kin. I somehow grew up believing that uncertainty was tainted.

But there exists a second Jewish paradigm for uncertainty, one I encountered in adulthood. In Ketuvim (Writings), Job undergoes a painful metamorphosis that leads to “I don’t know” as a message of faith and truth. After having nearly everyone and everything taken away from him, he admits, “Indeed I spoke without understanding of things beyond me, which I do not know” (Job 42: 3). Job’s statement of “I don’t know” is a resolution to the crisis of his time and the crisis of his faith, not a shirking of responsibility or an act of denial.

When we imagine in a few weeks what it would have been like to leave Egypt, we will inevitably empathize with the unknown of that experience in a uniquely personalized manner. To not know if slavery would end; to not know what lay beyond the Sea; to not know from where the next meal or drink would come. This year, the fifth child will be present at our seder tables as a reminder of all we did not know then and all we, our children, and our leaders presently don’t know now. The blessing of stating uncertainty is that it opens us to lean into the vital partnerships that we will need to get through this pandemic together, the courage to cross the sea to another unknown, and the responsibility to take others along in tow.

Rabbi Sarah Shulman is Executive Director of Camp Ramah in Northern California, an overnight Jewish specialty camp located along the shores of Monterey Bay.